A Monologue On Monologuing

We’re back for another round of “plot hole” defending, but this week we aren’t going to be looking into any specific film or book, but rather a trope: the villainous monologue. I’m sure that by now it’s a trope well-known enough that I don’t need to explain it, and can simply observe that the plan-revealing, hero-mocking, self-congratulating monologue is so common it’s been satirized in everything from superhero films to children’s books to Geico commercials. And, of course, when it occurs with all seriousness in a work of media, it’s immediately piled on by a legion of detractors, ready to wave every last monologue around as a beacon of suck in the world of media, a plot hole that absolutely ruins the story it’s in. But, as I’m sure you’ve all expecting, I’m going to bat for the villainous monologue because I think that, while they’re incredibly difficult to do right and often go pitifully wrong, they’re incredible pieces of script writing that actually deepen our connection to the work they’re in when done well.

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Let’s admit it right off the bat: monologuing is an awful idea on the part of any villain. It gives a hero time to come up with a plan or escape, and often divulges important information the hero might need to foil the villain delivering said monologue. And when done poorly, the villainous monologue is an awful idea on the part of the writer as well, and a true plot hole: not just a poor decision made by a character, but a story beat that does nothing worthwhile but cram what should be an incredibly tense moment full of dull, distracting exposition that kills the vibe the rest of that film has been working so hard to establish. However, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the villainous monologue. After all, you don’t really expect a villain to just kill a hero without any fuss instead of indulging their desire to cause anguish or torment or appease their own ego, do you? The villainous monologue is not out of character for a villain, precisely because they’re villains: the kind of people who would enjoy flexing their power over a helpless hero and rubbing their face in it. But by all means, don’t take my word for it. Take the word of late renowned author Terry Pratchett:

If you have to look along the shaft of an arrow from the wrong end, if a man has you entirely at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you’re going to die. So they’ll talk. They’ll gloat. They’ll watch you squirm. They’ll put off the moment of murder like another man will put off a good cigar.

So hope like hell your captor is an evil man. A good man will kill you with hardly a word.
— Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms

This means that the villainous monologue can both be a decision that we’d expect a villain to make, and also a decision that reinforces the villainy of the villain making it.

Even more importantly, the villainous monologue can help give information that either audience or hero isn’t privy to. Often, this servers a purely practical purpose, giving the hero (and by extension, the audience) access to information that was unavailable to us before, such as details of the villain’s scheme. These in turn drive the action of the rest of the work. Other times, the information delivered in these monologues is purely emotional and thematic. Indeed, the best villainous monologues often reveal some emotional truth behind the villain of the piece or a new facet to their character that connects powerfully to the themes of the movie, deepening our understanding of said villain (pretty much all of Syndrome’s monologues in The Incredibles are absolute goldmines because of this). Finally, a villainous monologue can also be used for shock effect, to reveal either a surprise that we and the hero never saw coming, whether that’s a stunning change of loyalty or a shocking twist in a plan that will change the outcome of the movie. If the monologue is conceived, written, and acted well, in other words, it can be an incredible boon to a story, providing it with both practical plot advancement and emotional development that deepen our connection to a work while also providing for an entertaining few minutes.

In short, the villainous monologue can be justified by both the stories they’re in and the villains that deliver them. It all comes down to a concept that economics calls by the name “rational actors.” Most entry-level economics courses present models to students that are based on the assumption that human beings act rationally, which generally results in economic models of the world that are easier to both teach and learn. Here’s the thing though: that analysis of human behavior is entirely inaccurate. We’re creatures driven by emotion, and we act irrationally all the time, especially when it comes to things like money or triumph or revenge. This analysis, of course, can be easily applied to the question of the villainous monologue. Monologuing is far from a rational action, and when the villainous monologue is done poorly, it can entirely be a confusing plot hole that disengages us from the story it’s in. But just because they’re irrational doesn’t mean that villainous monologues aren’t justified by character. And when they’re handled well, they can be incredible pieces of storytelling that genuinely elevate the work they’re in and draw us deeply into the character’s psychology. And that’s not a plot hole at all.

Next week I’m going to take a short break from the series because this post has gotten me seriously excited, and drop a list of my favorite monologues on you all. In the words of Ned Stark:

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With excitement and optimism,

Alex